How world sees SA: BBC HARDtalk rips into Zuma loyalist T&I Min Rob Davies

In an interview televised locally last night, BBC HARDtalk anchor Stephen Sackur launched a full-frontal attack on South African trade minister Rob Davies. The British broadcaster’s flagship interview programme, which asks tough questions about sensitive issues, raised all the likely suspects – President Zuma breaking his oath of office; State Capture by the Guptas; a contracting SA economy – and a few more besides. It was a fascinating contest with Sackur probing mercilessly while Davies donned the armour of a steadfastly loyal cadre, like his deadpan dismissal of demands for Zuma’s resignation as part of an opposition plot to eject the ANC as a whole. Davies stuck to his script, talking through the interviewer’s interruptions and retaining a calm demeanour as an incredulous Sackur displayed growing bemusement. Davies’ fans will be well pleased. I’m not so sure the international audience will be as enthralled. For them it was a chilling reminder of the blinkered approach of old National Party ministers who refused to allow rationality to influence their world-view. In South African politics, the more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same. Click here to listen to the interview. Or read our transcript below. – Alec Hogg 

South African Trade 7 Industry Minister Rob Davies came under the cosh in an aggressive BBC HARDTALK interview this week
South African Trade & Industry Minister Rob Davies came under the cosh in an aggressive BBC HARDTALK interview this week.

This is HARDtalk with me, Stephen Sackur. My guest today is an ANC loyalist who has served President Jacob Zuma as Minister since 2009 but now he faces perhaps the most difficult question of his career. Is it time for that loyalty to end? Rob Davies, like so many ANC’ers, has a long history in the anti-apartheid struggle. As a white opponent of the apartheid regime, he spent years in exile. He returned with a doctorate in economics and was quickly drafted into the ANC government. He served as Minister of Trade and Industry for seven years but never before has he experienced the kind of political crisis faced by President Zuma today.

The President is engulfed by allegations of corruption, abuse of power and cronyism. South Africa’s Constitutional Court has described his actions as unconstitutionalmore than 700 longstanding corruption charges against him may be revived. Opponents say he’s allowed certain powerful business interests to ‘capture the state’. He’s perceived by the financial markets to be a liability to South Africa’s economic prospects. Every time it looks like his days may be numbered, South Africa’s currency actually strengthens. How long can this go on? Does Jacob Zuma need to be pushed if he won’t jump?

Well, Rob Davies joins me on the line from Cape Town now. Welcome to HARDtalk.

Thank you very much.

Minister, do you feel comfortable serving a President whose behaviour has been defined by the Constitutional Court as being in violation of your country’s Constitution?

Well, I think the point I would make is that the Constitutional Court and indeed, the High Court in Gauteng…none of the findings that have been made recently have required that the President should leave office. They have dealt with other issues and other remedial actions that are required, including the payment of the reasonable proportion of what’s deemed the ‘non-security update’.

Read also: Malema: By ignoring Constitution, Zuma is pushing SA towards a failed state

Let me stop you right there. Minister, you’ve just thrown out a red herring in your first answer. It’s not the court’s job to tell a politician to leave office. It’s the court’s job to find whether or not he’s behaving in line with the Constitution and he’s patently not. From there, my question is simple. Are you comfortable serving a President who is violating the Constitution?

As I said, there’s no legal or Constitutional reason for the President to leave office. It becomes a political question. If you look at most of the opposition parties, what they’re looking at is not just the removal of President Zuma from office. They’re looking for the removal of the African National Congress from its position in Government. I think that’s fundamentally what it’s about. They’re looking for some kind of early exit of the ANC, some kind of movement of the ANC from Government before the expiry of its term in office, which lasts until the end of 2019. Actually, what we’ve got is a functioning Government that is continuing to serve the interests of the people of the country and I’m very happy to continue to serve in that regard.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan - a secret member of the political opposition asks Sackur?
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan – a secret member of the political opposition, asks Sackur?

Well, you’ve just politicised this from the very beginning and maybe you know something I don’t. Maybe Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is secret member of the opposition, even though he appears to be a member of the ANC and the Government. I’m mentioning him because he said on the 5th of April, “Once our actions are seen to be incongruent with the Constitution, we must know that we’ve moved away from our duty to serve our people and we have broken our contract.” That’s a Government minister, saying that.

Yes, there were findings by the Constitutional Court in regard to the Nkandla upgrades issue. The findings were also backed up by prescribed actions. Those prescribed actions are that there will be a process of determining the value of the non-security upgrades and the proportion that the President must pay, and then the President must pay it. I think those were the findings of the Constitutional Court. What I’m saying is that it becomes a political question thereafter – what happens to the President – and many of the opposition parties are saying much of the noise that there is around the need for the President to leave office is not founded in the Constitutional Court rulings. It’s founded on a desire to try to replace the governing party, which has not yet completed its mandate and which continues to serve the people of the country.

Read also: Judith February: ConCourt dismissal short-sighted. Zuma’s exit to be drawn out.

No. I’m sorry. Maybe I’m not asking my questions clearly enough. Let me try one more time. One of the most important Ministers in your Government, the Government, which you loyally serve, Pravin Gordhan has basically declared that in his view, given what the Constitutional Court has said. The President has broken with the people. I’m asking you do you agree with that or disagree?

I think that the Minister was actually saying he was warning us that we cannot operate beyond the bounds of the Constitution. We have to operate within the framework of the Constitution. Now, if there is some or other…

The President is way beyond the bounds of the Constitution.

Well, I think that’s a matter of debate and discussion, and what I’m saying is that I think, from a legal and Constitutional point of view, there is no reason for the President to leave office – the call and the clamour for him to do so, is a political clamour. Quite a lot of it is orchestrated by opposition parties that want to shorten the term of office of the ANC Government…

Let’s leave aside your constant refrain that this all cooked up by the opposition. Let us remember that the Constitutional Court, the Highest Constitutional Court – independent. That’s the whole point of your Constitution, and let us also reflect on what you call ‘Nkandla scandal’. Many people around the world won’t know the detail but, in essence, Jacob Zuma spent millions of Dollars, and he claimed he was doing it because of security requirements. To install things like a swimming pool, a special set of pens for cattle on his ranch-style estate, an amphitheatre as well. He claimed all of this money from the State, claiming it was for security purposes. That blatantly wasn’t true and you’re telling me that you’re not sure that there’s an issue here that calls into question whether he can be President anymore.

Well, the remedial action that the Public Protector sought was that in respect of those features, and defined features that the President should pay a reasonable proportion of the cost of those. That is what the Constitutional Court has upheld. That process of determining that, which will be followed by, within a period of time, overseen by the Constitutional Court that is the remedy in respect of that particular episode, which by the way, had other features in it. That the costs overrun the design of the security features, the way in which it was contracted out. Those various departments and Government officials and Ministers were required to deal with the consequences of that, and some people indeed, have been subject to disciplinary and even criminal investigation.

Read also: Zuma on Nkandla judgment: “I’m sorry” – didn’t deliberately violate Constitution

Minister, are you in any way embarrassed by the answers that you feel you’ve had to give to me today, presumably for political reasons?

I haven’t any reason to be embarrassed. I’m just telling you the way I look at the situation in South Africa that we’ve got a functioning Government in place. We’ve got a President in place, which there’ve been some unfortunate incidents around, like I don’t think that the Nkandla story was something that we’re all happy and proud about but also the President didn’t ask for the security upgrades in his house and there’ve been certainly some excesses and some lapses in our system around Nkandla. The remedial action, as I’ve said, has been prescribed by the Public Protector and upheld by the Constitutional Court.

ANC struggle hero at the state funeral of former President Nelson Mandela. flickr.com.
ANC struggle hero at the state funeral of former President Nelson Mandela – he has also called for Zuma’s resignation as Sackur reminded the Trade & Industry minister. flickr.com.

Just one other thought on a personal level. It was very striking to me that one of Nelson Mandela’s greatest friends and fellow strugglers and prisoners, Ahmed Kathrada, who is now 86. Who has consistently, over many years said, “I will not snipe at. I will not criticise the leadership of the ANC, even if I feel that they’re going in the wrong direction because that would be disloyal.” This man, Ahmed Kathrada, finally decided he’s seen enough when the Constitutional Court ruled and he said this. He said, “Is it asking too much to express the hope that you, (Jacob Zuma of course) will choose the correct way and finally consider stepping down?” Now, Ahmed Kathrada is, in many ways, the living conscience of your movement, the ANC – did his words give you pause for thought?

Well, I think that Ahmed Kathrada is someone that we respect greatly. There’ve been other voices, Denis Goldberg and [inaudible 0:09:31.4], who’s also a person that we respect greatly and we revere. They have been expressing their opinions publically. We have a process in the African National Congress, which is being decided upon by the current leadership of consulting our branches and consulting our members. We, actually the leadership of the ANC, the National Executive Committee, (which I’m a member), we took the view that the apology of the President. The remedial action that was in place was a very, significant path towards putting right what had gone wrong and that we didn’t consider that the removal of the President was warranted, at that particular moment in time. That’s the decision that we took and that it’s a decision that we are debating and discussing with members of our organisation, including (I believe) the leadership of the organisation, the Top-6, will be in meeting with some of those revered leaders of ours and discussing with them their views and our views as well.

You’re a Parliamentarian. Now, obviously Parliament ultimately, is the Legislative Authority and also the authority when it comes to impeaching a President. You had the opportunity to vote on impeaching Jacob Zuma. I can’t think of a more important vote that you might have faced in your entire career. Did you vote?

Well, actually I wasn’t there. I was on Government business elsewhere.

You weren’t there…?

It was an opposition motion. I wasn’t there. It was an opposition motion, which needed a two-thirds majority. It was never going to fly. It was something driven by them and their agenda. We didn’t believe it was anything that was warranted and that was the outcome, as well, in terms of the vote.

Read also: How world sees SA: Courts confirm Zuma should never have become Prez

I suppose it’s in a way, convenient that you don’t have a mark on your record as having said that you actually voted to support Jacob Zuma. You were rather conveniently away from the Chamber. It just seems you dodged the issue entirely.

Well, I would have voted with the ANC to vote down the impeachment motion of the opposition.

How many people inside your party believe it’s time for Zuma to go?

Well, I don’t know. As you indicated, there are some prominent voices that have said so publically. There may be other people but the view of the leadership is that it is not warranted by the outcome of the Constitution and that the remedies that will be in place are sufficient

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma answers questions at Parliament in Cape Town, March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma – does he have the integrity, the credibility to continue as SA’s President the BBC asked Davies. March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Just to be clear… I want to make this personal because politics matters. Politics is about conscience. It’s not just about party loyalty, so I want to make this personal. Just finally, on this point, on the record to be clear, you personally, believe that Jacob Zuma has the credibility, has the integrity to continue to be President of your country.

Well, Jacob Zuma was elected President of the African National Congress and was elected as President of the country. His mandate is not concluded and I believe that his mandate is ongoing, and I’m happy to serve the Government of the African National Congress in the tasks and the manifesto of the African National Congress.

Well, you are extraordinarily loyal to your party but you didn’t really address the question of your own, personal feelings about Zuma. Maybe you choose not to.

Well, I’m loyal to the collective of the African National Congress, the vision of the African National Congress. To us, correcting things that have gone wrong, in terms of the administration’s mistakes, but also I believe that we’ve got a proud record of achievements that needs to be safeguarded and taken further forward in very difficult and trying circumstances that we find ourselves in, in South Africa (as far as the economy is concerned).

Well, we’ll get to that.

Read also: Bloomberg View: SA will not prosper while Jacob Zuma remains President

That’s where I’m deployed and I believe I have a contribution to make, and I think that’s what I’m doing.

We’ll get to discussing the economy in just a minute and let’s get there by way of another, seems to me, a fundamental credibility issue facing your Government. How did you respond when the ‘Financial Times’ reported that Deputy Finance Minister, Jonas, had told them that a controversial family, with major business interests in South Africa, the Gupta family, had offered him the post of Finance Secretary/Minister? How did you respond to that story?

You know, like many people I am extremely concerned if there’s any element of truth in that. I do know that Deputy Minister Jonas is a person of integrity and I’ve no reason to doubt that he is telling us the truth. I think that there is a serious problem, if we have people from Business concerns, offering people Ministerial positions. That is completely out of order and it is completely unacceptable, and indeed, I think Deputy Minister Jonas, the way he reported it, he did the right thing in refusing it…

Yes, well that’s what Jonas said, he said, “I rejected it out of hand because it made a mockery of our hard earned democracy.” Of course, I should say that the Gupta family have categorically denied the meeting. They’ve denied that they were politically interfering in any way but the fact is that many South Africans have seen…

The ANC has invited everybody with information to come to the ANC explain to them, and to put all the cards on the table, and to come back to the Executive and deliver us a report on this matter. I don’t know the veracity of any particular allegations or not. I don’t know.

What you do know is that Jacob Zuma fired his Finance Minister, Mr Nene on the 9th December 2015 (I think it was). He appointed a man, who was virtually unknown to the position, David van Rooyen, and then four days later he fired him and appointed another man, who had been Finance Minister before Nene, Pravin Gordhan. What does that tell us about the ability of the President to manage the economy by way of key appointments?

Well, I think that the fact that Pravin Gordhan eventually emerged as the Finance Minister meant that what happened was that the organisation, the leadership of the organisation, are capable of recognising where there’s been a mistake and are capable of correcting it, and that’s what happened in that particular case.

It was a shambles.

Well, you can use whatever adjective you want but I’m just saying that the organisation was capable of rectifying a mistake.

On this question of crony capitalism and the State being captured by certain business interests – what you know better than me is a conversation that many South Africans have had in the last few months, and are having right now today. Let me just ask you this question. Do you know the Guptas?

I do. I have met them on a number of occasions, yes.

Zapiro nails it - as usual. For more Zapiro magic, click here.
Davies admits he met with Guptas “on a number of occassions.” For more Zapiro magic, click here.

You’ve met them as a Minister. Doesn’t it strike you as at least an uneasy and awkward thing that when you meet the Guptas you know full well that the President’s son has a major stake in some of their holding companies. We’re talking about crony capitalism and the way South Africa works today. Does that make you feel uneasy?

Well, let me just say from a point of view of me, and my Department, and where I work. When I interact with people, there are no way at all that any interactions I have with any individual or any person is going to influence how we deploy our resources, as a Department. We have professionals, who take decisions about how we deploy our incentives. We set policy frameworks. I do not get involved in deciding with any individual businessperson will or will not get access to any of our particular programs. They’ve never asked me about it and had they asked me that would have been the answer I gave them.

Read also: Guptas slammed as “plunder-preneurs” as divide in ANC’s alliance deepens

Come back, finally, just give me a simple answer. Do you feel uneasy when you meet significant, major business players in South Africa and you know that one of the President’s closest relatives has a major stake in what they are doing?

Well, the Gupta family – none of their business interests interacted with anything in our Department. I meet many other kinds of businesspeople in South Africa. I meet multi-national corporations that are invested in our country and all kinds of businesspeople. I have an approach to them, which is one that I am a servant of the people of the country. I take decisions in the interest of the country as a whole. I don’t take decisions in the interests of any particular businesspeople.

All right, now we’ve talked about the political crisis, at the top of your Government. We’ve talked about the allegations and the unease about so-called crony capitalism in South Africa today. What we need to get to is the fact that your economy is in dire straits. The Finance Minister, whom we’ve discussed, Pravin Gordhan, said just a few weeks ago, “Let us be honest, the economy is in a crisis.” Do you agree?

I do and, as is the world economy and what’s happening at this particular phase of the world economic crisis is that it is not just affecting us, as South Africa, as it has done up to now. In the form of depressed global, demand but also, right now it’s affecting mineral commodity producing and exporting countries, so we’re in the same categories as Canada, which has been in recession. Our growth rate is pretty much the same as Australia. Brazil is in a deep recession and many countries on the African Continent, which are producers and exporters of primary commodities are suffering from the fact that the commodity super-cycle, passed its peak in 2012, and mineral commodity prices are very much lower, other than they have been in the recent past. That’s the gist of it and we’re an economy in which 60 percent of our export earnings are from mineral exports.

Read also: Lessons from Brazil? Kickstart economy, fighting off recession could save Zuma

Well, if I may say so, Minister I think a lot of South Africans will say that’s partly the gist of it. Nobody would doubt that the end of what you call the commodity super-cycle has had a grave impact on South Africa. That’s not deniable but what is surely to the point here is that your Government, the Government that you serve as part of, has proven incapable of showing leadership and getting the country out of the mess. In fact, the mess is getting worse and worse. Unemployment is at least 25 percent. Well, the IMF says it’s actually much closer to 32 percent. You’ve got a growing debt in your nation, which has doubled since Jacob Zuma came to power. Your currency is showing historic weakness and all the signs are that the credit ratings agencies, who look at you from the outside, are going to downgrade your credit rating to junk status. Now, you represent, sort of South Africa to the world in economic terms. You’ve got to accept this is all a disaster.

No, I don’t accept it’s all a disaster. What I will accept is that we are facing some very, serious challenges and, as I said, we are in the same category as many other economies…

Yes, but not all those other economies are led by Governments, which have totally lost credibility.

No, but I don’t think that that’s the case either, with South Africa. For a start, what our programs are, are to address the things that we can affect under very difficult circumstances. Say, for example, if you were in South Africa about 18 months ago, people were talking about the energy challenges. We have not had any kind of power interruption for nine months in this country now. We are getting on top of the energy situation…

That’s precisely because so many of your big industrial companies, including mining operations and others, are no longer using the same amount of power because the economy is in such a ‘slow-down’. That’s precisely why your power cuts aren’t taken place at the moment. Leave that aside, we are almost out of time. You were the Trade Minister, surely this…

We’re not in recession…

No, not yet but you’re very close.

We have a steady inflow of investments. Some of our sectors in our manufacturing, (which is where I’m responsible), and where diversification is the key element of our response. We have seen, for example, the automotive sector – we’ve seen very significant investments and…..

Read also: Straight faced Zuma: “Leaders must go when people don’t want them anymore.”

If I may say so, Minister, we are almost out of time. Foreign direct investment, into South Africa, fell 74 percent. That, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development on the 20th January – that is the real situation in your country today because of the political mess all around you.

Absolutely not – that particular figure was the product of two transactions by two companies. We’ll see the same gloop again – when we see, Barclays restructure its operations in Africa but actually there’s a steady pipeline of investments that are coming into our country, going into the auto sector, going into fast moving consumer goods, going into our infrastructure projects, going into railways. There’s a steady stream of foreign investment in the real economy. Yes, the mining economy is not as attractive as it was. It is difficult circumstances but the devalued currency has not been bad for many of our productive sectors.

All right, the final question, because we’re out of time and it will have to be pretty much a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Will Jacob Zuma serve out his full term?

Well, I’m not going to get into those kinds of predictions. I don’t see any reason, at this point in time why he should not.

All right, Rob Davies thank you very much for joining me from Cape Town. That was an edition of HARDtalk presented by me, Stephen Sackur. For details of our complete range of podcasts and our terms of use, go to bbcworldservice.com/podcasts.

Source – BBC News / BBC Sport / bbc.co.uk – © 2016 BBC